Thursday, December 30

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 30, 2010 6 comments
The new year will soon be upon us, so I'm doing a little year-end retrospective on my top blogposts of 2010. Today's post appeared in September and was composed for Elena's blog hop.

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The most compelling characters seem to have a life outside the confines of your story. They're not like those animatronic beings on Disney World rides that are switched on and come to life only when there's an audience to observe them.

Giving a character that life might entail developing backstory. But more importantly, it involves giving every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the "here and now" of your story. Much of that present life may take place offstage (or "off page"). But it should leave traces--evidence apparent in the details you sprinkle in.

Those details might support what we already know about a character. A nice guy might show up late for a formal date with wheel grease on his knees. And we know he's the type to stop and change someone's tire, even if it's inconvenient.

The details might play against type. She's a tough girl from the 'hood, but that strange indentation under her chin...well, it looks like the mark of hours of practicing violin.

When details play enough against type, you can end up making a powerful social commentary. Think of Rowling's Dolores Umbridge, the sadistic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her office is decorated with pink and lace and collector's plates depicting frolicking kittens. It's absolutely chilling, because Rowling has deftly shown you the heart of evil--one that perpetuates wrong in the quest for building a comfy utopia.

How you work in those details could take a volume to explore. But I'll give some broad-strokes ideas, followed by examples.

Physical traits
~Peculiar calluses on his hands from rowing crew
~Terrible haircut from her kid sister who's attending beauty school
~Incongruous tattoos
~Signs of past injury like limping and scars

~Hand placed always on his beeper, as if expecting an emergency at the hospital
~Fiddling with a charm bracelet that seems to tell a story
~Humming music from a peculiar venue -- hymns, show tunes, Wiggles songs

~Powdered sugar traces on the dieter's sweater
~Moth-eaten woman's coat still hanging in the bachelor's closet
~McDonald's uniform stuffed in the bottom of her locker
~Collection of knickknacks from around the world

The best sort of details to include are ones that hint at a character's values, passions, commitments and priorities. That, to me, makes a fictional being more than a cardboard cutout taking up space--it makes him have a life that means something.

What are some of your favorite characters who seem to have a life outside the novel? What resonates with you about these concepts of "life outside" and "life that means something"?


  1. love this! And I love it when you guys give samples of things they might be doing... stuff like that always gets my wheels turning~

    Happy New Year! :o) <3

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  3. I love this too. Great examples to show how to incorporate details without going overboard.

  4. Leigh: glad it inspired you! Happy new year!

    Holly: The littlest hints can do so much to make characters seem more real.

  5. I remember loving this post when you first posted it, and I love it still. The examples are great ones, too. :)